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Lessons From My Time as a Circus Elephant

Updated: Jan 16, 2020

I've spent years of my life as a circus elephant. It may be something we have in common.

There’s a parable* about a circus elephant that grows up with the chain around its ankle, anchored to the ground. Whenever it walks too far away, a trainer hits it. Once the chain is taken off its anchor, though the elephant could walk anywhere, it remains nearby. Even if the elephant were offered freedom, the elephant would struggle to realize that freedom was not another test of obedience.

Most of us have lived our lives in three ring circuses of our own, in exploitatative, if entertaining relationships with institutions and individuals, caught in false bargains that promise us safety if we'll just comply.

I could talk about all these circuses, but I won't just yet. First, one that is near and dear to my heart--conventional schooling.

The 13+ years of conventional schooling that many people experience in the U.S. does a great job teaching compliance. Trainers (parents, teachers, friends, celebrities, circumstances) show us the expectations we're to work within and the routines to perform to ostensibly avoid suffering.

As a student, and as a teacher, I find this an unfortunate and illusory state of affairs.

Growing up, I looked on as those who fidgeted were called “disrespectful.” Those who tried to be creative were “noncompliant.” Those who didn't care about things that sometimes honestly weren't worth caring about? They weren't admirable for having priorities—they were heretics! Didn't they understand the importance of trying hard in school?

Sometimes our well-meaning trainers would say, "Don't worry too much, school is about curiosity, learning, and discovery!" while still punishing unconventional, unmarketable missteps. They would claim that the chains didn't matter, but we had little reason to trust them. Trainers still had a hold of the end, and could yank it back or lash out at any time.

After compulsory enrollment in this system, some are unwilling to subject themselves to more, and try to break away. We try to cure absenteeism and drop-out crises with punishment and scare tactics. These attempts to quench a blaze with a shower of fireworks would be laughable if they weren't so concerning.

Then there are others, the few, the proud, who thrived in conventional education environments, or who have enough hope to keep trying to reform them—they often pursue higher education, leveling up from side shows to the biggest of big tops.

Top colleges explicitly select staff and students who are willing to be over-scheduled, hoop-jumping, sequin-vested, star-of-the-show elephants. Such candidates are told (in professors’ cases after earning tenure through additional hoop jumping), "We want you to be free to learn!" This academic freedom is offered with little foundational trust, without striking the well-forged chains of high-stakes evaluation, and without proof that there is no switch behind trainers’ backs. 

I’ve struggled to reconcile my my own desire to “do well" in my education and career with my own resistance to common ideas about success. As a student, for example, I often did assignments more out of compliance than due to any spark of genuine curiosity. The question hissing in the background of my mind was regularly, “What kind of trick will my elephant trainer clap for?” not "What questions are actually worth asking?"

But lest the point be misunderstood, I am not here to condemn trainers. We do the best we can with what we know. Most animal trainers try mightily to care for their animals, just like most teachers truly want to help their students. Yet our standards for care and help are so interwoven with conditioned tendencies to coerce and exploit. When we are willing to meet our teachers, families, and our own conditioned thoughts, with compassion as fellow long-suffering elephants, we have a chance to build connections, and recover our wildish natures.

I've been lucky to find some wise elephants among my trainers who have offered me spoonfuls of my own freedom, with permission to use it. Even so, my world is still affected by years spent with my worth being contingent on my compliance.

Recovery from a lifetime in the circus takes considerable time. It will take time to be certain that the beautiful, complex, sometimes savage reality of the savannah constitutes true home after living under the big top's deceptively friendly and colorful tent for so many years.

I have told my favorite professors that I am grateful for their humanity. They are very smart elephants, and might have trainer costumes, but they work against the B.S. that comes with the outfit. They want students to learn, and they want to learn alongside their students, to be creative, to help others thrive.

It's desperately hard to be an elephant when you're "supposed to be" an elephant trainer, just like it's hard to be a free-range elephant when you've spent 13+ years at the circus. I’m grateful for the professors and for my fellow students who do the work to heal themselves and bring healing to others, because once healed, empathy, curiosity, and creativity can regrow like shoots from a pruned branch.

I originally wrote this essay as I pondered what it would mean for me to become a conventional classroom teacher. However benevolent I hoped to be, I have realized that it is not currently possible for me to teach in a conventional classroom (even a progressive, flexible, private-school one) healthfully. It is not kind to myself in my recovery, nor does it feel right for me to subject students to conditioning that so strongly values comparison and compliance, when I know it's messed with me so heartily.

Young people are magnificent. They are perennially called toward fresh air and real choices. Some of them won't manage to opt out of their training, accepting their sore lack of freedom as the unfortunate status quo. We have all met some of those people. I certainly have been one of them. Through no real fault of their own, many people who have never challenged educational norms become trainers, working, sometimes without realizing it, to maintain the perception that there are no other options.

There are options. Amidst the peanut shells, and the comically-extended metaphor of this essay, I wish to tell you that there are ways to step out of the circus without stepping on too many spectators, and get back into the real, risky, and revelatory freedom of the wild.

In vocational programs, democratic schools, alternative school programs, trauma-informed schools, in rebel conventional classrooms, at self-directed education programs, in libraries, homes, under trees, behind rocks, in cubicles and yoga studios, wherever two or more are gathered--there are so many ways to live and learn that can gracefully and graciously honor human dignity. Organizations like the Alliance for Self Directed Education, the Alternative Education Resource Organization, the Peer Unschooling Network, and Vermont Teaching and Learning for the Future have brought me so much hope. In seeing their work first hand, I know we are capable of sewing a beautiful new quilt out of circus tent fabric, one that can keep us warm as we run free.

I set classroom teaching to the side for many reasons, not least being that my circus elephant legs were very tired, enduringly so, from the rigorous shows I have been putting on for so long. Even though I have a degree that would have allowed me to pursue my public school teaching credential, I chose not to student teach after graduation. And after one glorious semester, I left my first private-school teaching job behind. That semester contained some of the most meaningful work I have ever done, but also featured jarring encounters with some of the most unpleasant side roads of my psyche. Put simply, trying to convince brilliant young people to do things they don't want to do, that are arguably unnecessary and certainly not urgent, isn't my forté.

After a year's rest, I am stepping back into the ring. I'm a rogue trainer now. One mission of mine is to help young elephants develop beautiful boundaries and rock-solid self-trust. Another is to offer the older ones chances to re-meet their wise and wild selves.

I'm doing this through my work teaching writing, dance, and art through Fun is a Necessity, and in partnership with organizations like Addison Central Teens, Outright Vermont, and Arts So Wonderful in Burlington, VT.

Committed as I am to enthusiastic acceptance of life's paradoxes, I am also signed up for the graduate school circus. So far, it has featured many admirably well-trained elephants, staff and students alike who have adapted in beautiful and unfortunate ways to their circumstances. We're so well trained that we sometimes convince ourselves that our peak performances are our expressions of freedom. Ahhh academia. Maybe sometimes they are, but many of us are just scared to leave the circus. On bad days, I am.

Heck, I've gotten good at the circus. It's almost fun now. Almost. I like reading and writing, and I get to do plenty of both, but there's a transactional feel to it that I notice more and more, which strips the experience of some of its luster. I anticipate that my re-enrollment will be a sweetbitter endeavor, but every six weeks I invest I get a step closer to a new layer of prestige that may help me talk with other trainers, may help me convince them to reinhabit the gorgeous messiness of their own minds and skins, and go back to walking on their gentlesweet, pebble-stoned feet. We'll see how things go, but I can say this much--for the moment, having some freedom is magnificent, and my commitments to my own circuses are loosening deliciously.

*I'm not sure where the story originated. If someone knows, I would be grateful and would like to share it here. This is a potential source, but the author's name doesn't ring familiar to me. Perhaps I first encountered it unattributed. In any case, it's powerful stuff.

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